Sunday, 14th July 2024

Review – Irish Historical Studies

This particularly handsome volume, published to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the foundation of the Ludovisian Irish College in Rome, features an account of the college’s first fifty years which was published in the original Latin in Archivium Hibernicum, vol. xxvii (1964).  The author is believed to have been Father James Reilly, S.J., a student of the college (1662-7).  In this book an edited transcript of the original Latin text, prepared by Monsignor John J. Hanly, is presented alongside the first-ever English translation by the classics scholar Declan Lawell.  The first chapter details the circumstances surrounding the foundation of the college in 1628 by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, nephew of Gregory XV, and traces its development in the early years while it was under the direction of the Franciscans.  Predictably the author is fulsome inn his praise of Ludovisi and of Father Luke Wadding, who is portrayed as playing a pivotal role in persuading the cardinal to found the college and in devising a code of rules and regulations.

The second chapter traces the fortunes of the college community under the stewardship of fourteen Jesuit rectors during the period 1635-78.  This section is overwhelmingly concerned with describing successive rectors’ strategies in addressing the college’s extremely precarious financial state and their management of college property.  In this respect it mirrors the content of most contemporary Irish College archives throughout Europe.  When in 1635 the Jesuits assumed the rectorship, only five crowns remained in the coffers and sizeable debts had been accumulated.  The finances further deteriorated in 1639, when father William Malone, S.J., the rector, purchased a permanent residence for the college (now the Convitto di S. Tommaso) for 8,000 crowns.  The author is frank and unflattering in his assessment of successive rectors’ handling of the finances and portrays the 1650’s as a particularly dark chapter in the history of the college owing to maladministration and a decline in discipline.  In addition, he offers interesting comments on the rectors’ distinctive visions for the college and the Irish mission and also on their relations with the students.  Fifty years after its foundation the college is described as more financially secure, its community living in more comfortable accommodation and adhering to the highest standards in religious observance.

Chapter 3 features a description of the college chapel and a brief account of the library’s history, as well as a vignette on the practice of accommodating foreign lodgers on the premises.  All students were required to take an oath to return to Ireland, and various versions of this oath as taken by students during the first fifty years are reproduced in chapter 4 and in an appendix.  Unfortunately chapter 5, entitled ‘The rules of the college’ the author did not, in fact, insert the rules as he had intended, though Monsignor Hanly refers the reader to versions of the rules in an alternative collection in the college archives.

The sixth chapter, which profiles the students admitted to the college down to 1678, is the most fascinating.  In these cameo portraits, which become increasingly detailed from the 1640’s onwards, the author records standard information concerning each students admission and departure dates, his previous education and pursuit of studies in Rome, and his subsequent career.  Since it is often difficult to trace the whereabouts of Irish clerics beyond their ordination in continental colleges, this listing is especially valuable, enabling researchers to gauge the contribution of the college’s clerics to the Irish mission.  The author makes it clear that, despite the expectation that all graduates were to return to minister in Ireland, some remained on the Continent, where they either secured teaching posts at continental universities and seminaries, pursued pastoral careers or joined religious orders, notably the Jesuits.  Apart from major figures such as Oliver Plunkett, archbishop of Armagh and John Brennan, archbishop of Cashel, less eminent clerics and even those who left before ordination are profiled.

While palpably proud of his alma mater and often overtly defensive on delicate issues concerning students behaviour, the author is especially engaging in his discriminating yet balanced assessment of their character.  His severs censure of Bonaventure White, who was expelled in 1654 for a violent drunken attack on his fellow students, is balanced by warm praise for many others whom he commended for their excellent conduct.  He alludes to the college authorities’ practice of providing students with clothing, money and a breviary on their departure for Ireland, and cites instances when particularly sympathetic and generous treatment was afforded clerics who were in poor health.  Indeed, the text features many references to clerics suffering bad health and even records the death of a handful of students during the sojourn in Rome.

In perusing these profiles, the reader will note distinct patterns, including the dominance of students from Leinster and Munster, the recurrence of family names such as Creagh and Plunkett, the importance of family and patronage networks in facilitating admission to the college and dictating the course of a clerics career, and the strength of friendships formed between young clerical students such as John Brennan and Oliver Plunkett during their student days in Rome.

Its contemporary character makes this document especially valuable.  It captures vividly the antipathy that many seventeenth-century Irish Catholics felt towards the English monarchy for trying to spread ‘pestilence’ (i.e. Protestantism) among the Irish, while the latter are acclaimed for their steadfast adherence to the catholic faith.  One is also struck by the poignancy of remarks such as the following, made in relation to archbishop Oliver Plunkett just three years before his execution: ‘for eight years now he has exercised his pastoral office brilliantly, which such remarkable diplomatic skill that the catholic revere him as a man of authority, while Protestants respect him and do not make trouble for him (pp 135-7).

The text is complimented by a very fine history of the college during the period 1625-1690 by the Rev. Dr Thomas O’Connor.  His rich synthesis of archival and historiographical material forms the backdrop to the narrative of the college’s historical evolution in an era of profound religious reform and revival both on the continent and in Ireland, thereby deepening the reader’s appreciation of the significance of the college’s foundation.  Equally impressive is monsignor Hanly’s scholarly introduction to the manuscript history and his explanatory notes on the text.  The volume is enhanced by the incorporation of several beautifully reproduced colour plates and a comprehensive index.

All involved in the production of this publication are to be commended for making available this valuable archival resource which offers a wealth of insights into the experiences of this Irish clerical community in Rome and illuminates the contribution of its members to the Irish mission during the seventeenth century

Review by Mary Ann Lyons, Irish Historical Studies Vol. XXXIV No 135, May 2005 pp. 345-347, Department of History, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.